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Standard quality as a boundary object – A conceptual study

Svein Ole Borgen (2021)

Sociologica Ruralis, Online first

Abstract. This is a conceptual article that uses the concept “boundary object” in order to discuss what role the loosely defined notion “standard product quality” plays with regard to coordination and controversies in the Norwegian agrifood market. The Boundary object theory offers a unique approach to exploring the boundaries (shared spaces) between standard and non-standard product qualities as framed by the involved actors. This theory emphasises the difference between doing and being: Analysing what quality does in social settings is a more informative approach than discussing what quality is. The core arguments are illustrated by a review of available studies of the Norwegian agrifood market. The first part of the article concludes that standard quality coordinates the hegemonic stakeholders (producers, retailers, regulators and consumers) without presupposing consensus between them. The second part of the article addresses the controversies in the boundaries between the hegemonic agricultural agrifood system and competing alternatives related to organic, terroir and animal welfare-qualities. The study discerns no signs of any transformative quality-turn away from the Norwegian hegemonic agrifood system and the inherent emphasise on “standard product” quality. On the other hand, this is not static since different interpretations of quality continuously challenge each other.

Extract: “Unsurprisingly, the scholarly literature includes many alternative approaches to what quality is, conceptually and in practice. One well-known example is the distinction between products of premium, standard and economy quality (Seenivasan & Talukdar, 2016; Stræte & Lindgreen, 2008). Another example is nominal vs. ordinal qualities (Bower, 2009). Further examples are credence vs. observable product qualities (Lassoued & Hobbs, 2015), objective vs. subjectively perceived product characteristics (Wiggins & Potter, 2003), and horizontal vs. vertical product differentiation (Lutz, 1997). To define it more precisely and operationalise it, socially constructed notions of quality must refer to phenomena outside itself, such as business strategies (Maillard, 2013; Teece, 2018), individual consumer preferences (Schjøll & Alfnes, 2017; Warde, 2015), quality standards (Brunsson & Jacobsson, 2000; Busch, 2011; White, 1981) and quality conventions (Boltanski & Thévenot, 1999; Storper & Salais, 1997; Thévenot, 2001; White, 1981). In their discussion of quality conventions, Storper and Salais define worlds of production as coherent combinations of technologies and markets, product qualities and quantitative practices of resource use. A world of production is a convention that represents and reflects a logical interlinkage between products, individuals, organisations, objects and ideas. It is structured around two dimensions: (a) Applied technology/organisation of production (standardised technology vs. specialised technology) and (b) The firms’ market orientation (generic market approach vs. dedicated market approach). The former refers to the supply side of the economy, and the latter refers to the demand side. A standardised product is made with a known, widely diffused production technology in which quality is so widely attainable that competition comes to be inevitably centred on price. From this, standard quality products are defined as “products that originate from production process with standardized technology and characterized by a generic market approach” (Storper & Salais, 1997, p. 109).” (p. 4-5)

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